US electric co-ops hit out at new rules to cut fossil power plant pollution

Health organisations and climate action groups welcomed the rules but Nreca says the plan is ‘unlawful, unrealistic and unachievable’

New rules from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), designed to reduce pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants, have been criticised by the country’s rural electric co-ops.

Finalised under separate authorities including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the rules, unveiled on 25 April, were designed to significantly reduce climate, air, water, and land pollution from the power sector.

The Biden-Harris Administration says the new rules will help improve public health without disrupting the delivery of reliable electricity.

“Today, EPA is proud to make good on the Biden-Harris Administration’s vision to tackle climate change and to protect all communities from pollution in our air, water, and in our neighbourhoods,” said EPA administrator Michael S Regan. “By developing these standards in a clear, transparent, inclusive manner, EPA is cutting pollution while ensuring that power companies can make smart investments and continue to deliver reliable electricity for all Americans.”

“This year, the United States is projected to build more new electric generation capacity than we have in two decades – and 96 percent of that will be clean,” said Biden’s national climate advisor, Ali Zaidi. “President Biden’s leadership has not only sparked an unprecedented expansion in clean electricity generation, his leadership has also launched an American manufacturing renaissance.

“America is now a magnet for private investment, with hundreds of billions of dollars committed and 270,000 new clean energy jobs created. This is how we win the future, by harnessing new technologies to grow our economy, deliver environmental justice, and save the planet for future generations.”

Under the new rules, all coal-fired plants that plan to run in the long term, and all new baseload gas-fired plants, have to control 90% of their carbon pollution. Other provisions include tightening the emissions standard for toxic metals by 67% and finalising a 70% reduction in the emissions standard for mercury from existing lignite-fired sources. 

Plants will also be required to reduce pollutants through wastewater from coal-fired power plants by more than 660m lb per year, and safely manage coal ash that is placed in areas that were unregulated at the federal level until now, including at previously used disposal areas that may leak and contaminate groundwater.

The plans drew sharp criticism from National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (Nreca). “The path outlined by the EPA is unlawful, unrealistic and unachievable,” said CEO Jim Matheson in a statement. “It undermines electric reliability and poses grave consequences for an already stressed electric grid. The American economy can’t succeed without reliable electricity.

“Smart energy policy recognises that fundamental truth and works to help keep the lights on. This barrage of new EPA rules ignores our nation’s ongoing electric reliability challenges and is the wrong approach at a critical time for our nation’s energy future.”

Nreca was particularly critical of the rule requiring power plants to control 90% of their carbon pollution, arguing it exceeded the EPA’s authority and disregarded Supreme Court rulings. The apex added that the technology required to comply with the rule is “promising but not ready for prime time” and raised concern over the compliance deadline.

Nreca also pointed out that power demand is expected to reach record highs in 2024 and 2025, increasing by 2.5% and 3.2% respectively, while grid planners forecast electricity demand to grow by 38 gigawatts through 2028.

But health organisations and climate action campaigners welcomed the new rules.

“The new rules to clean up air pollution from power plants are good news for everyone, especially if there is a power plant near where you work, live or study,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association. “Burning fossil fuels in power plants harms people’s lungs, makes kids sick and accelerates the climate crisis. The stronger clean air and climate protections will save lives.”

Earth Justice, a non-profit dedicated to litigating environmental issues, said the new rules would “bring much-needed improvements to public health” and “advance an ambitious vision for solving the most pressing environmental problems of our time”.

The new rules aim to support the Biden-Harris Administration’s pledge to eliminate carbon pollution from the electricity sector by 2035. Around 16% of the electricity in the US comes from coal plants, down from 45% in 2010.